The Douro Valley Region: Home to Port Wine
One day at the Harvest in the Douro Valley Region, Portugal
It’s from the heart of Portugal, in the Douro Wine Region, where vineyards line the winding river Douro, that the world famous Port wine is produced, and also home of some of the best and most renowned table wines in the world.
The Alto Douro Wine Region is a region in northern Portugal, with more than 26 thousand hectares, classified by UNESCO in 2001 as a world heritage site.
It is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world, ordered by the Marquis of Pombal, former minister of Portugal, in 1756.
The Douro River is the most powerful presence in this landscape, where in its slopes and valleys covered with vineyards one should note the remarkable work done by man in terracing the river banks with schist walls, the characteristic local stone.
In this unique and beautiful scenary of the valley of the Douro river we can find about 450 ‘Quintas’, portuguese for Wine Estates, (and more than 40,000 producers) where history and tradition meets with the passion for wine. Many of these ‘Quintas’ are linked to a centuries-old tradition of wine production, passed from generation to generation, as is the case of Quinta do Vale Meão and the Olazabal Family, direct descendants of Dona Antónia Ferreira, the most driving person in the production of Port wine in the nineteenth century and the most famous character in the Douro region.
From mid-August until late September the ‘vindimas’ (harvest) usually occur everywhere in this region. It is the busiest and most chaotic time of the year for the Douro ‘Quintas’ – says Francisco Olazabal – the charismatic owner of Quinta do Vale Meão, near the border with Spain.
During ‘vindimas’ time, the typical steep terraces of the Douro are filled with people from the region and neighboring villages, for the picking and pressing of the grapes. After harvesting, the grapes are deposited in ‘lagares’ – tanks of granite – where, traditionally, they are crushed by the feet of local people, and the resulting juice leads to the production of the Douro wine.
Estates like Quinta do Crasto and Quinta do Vale Dona Maria typically hire people from the region who wait all year for this period.
Maria Celia, 65 years old, says it is the happiest time of the year and loves working in the field and the conviviality of the day-to-day. She and her friend Maria Luisa, 60, born in Nelo do Douro, a small village in the region, are working together since they were 15 years old. Luísa says that the best time of the day is at lunch time when all workers gather at the site to eat their lunches brought from home – it is the ideal time to recharge energies and catch up while admiring the idyllic landscape of this place.
Lucinda Mesquita, 70, the oldest person working at Quinta do Vallado, comes to the harvest since her tender 12 years of age and has worked on farms all her life. Apart from the time of the harvest, farms provide employment all year – there are roots to cut, vines to prune, fertilizing, etc. Lucinda says that she would not do anything else in life and despite her age she will continue to work in the harvest while her health allows it. After a hearty lunch, Lucinda and her niece Maria return to the terraces repleted and prepared to continue their work picking the grapes to the sound of the traditional songs carried out by Goreti, the cherful singing lady of the group. Whilst young Lucinda did everything and worked all year, she now only works during this month and says that times have changed – “in my time it was harder, we worked often with hunger and rain, they gave us bread with sardines and ‘água pé’ (water mixed with wine) and this had to sustain us for the entire day.”
Virginia Dolorosa, 64, worker at the Quinta de Valpassos, says that despite her health problems she needs to come to work in the grape harvest to be able to support her family. After spending difficulties in South Africa, where she lived, she decided to return to Portugal to the village where she was born. When she returned she saw no other opportunity but in returning to work in the farms.
Nevertheless we do not see poverty in the region. Many of the young people that are working on the Quintas where the traditional treading of the grapes is done, as Niepoort, are attending university courses in nearby cities and come to the treading at night as a way to gain extra income.
In the Douro valley, treading the grapes is made mechanically on most Estates, but some still preserves the treading tradition, mainly due to the difference in the quality of the wine produced, says Joana Pinhão, winemaker of Quinta do Vale Dona Maria.
In foot treading, the grape seeds come out intact and only the skins are pressed, thus producing a wine with more color and flavor, compared with machines in which the seeds are broken resulting in a more acidic wine.
Besides allowing the preservation of this ancient tradition, the difference in the quality and color of the wine is the most important feature in this process.
João, worker at Quinta Vale Dona Maria and responsible for the hiring of workers, continues to come motivated to work every day. By 20h00 he brings about 10 young people from nearby villages to work on the Quinta and his job is to keep them motivated to continue their work of 4 hours treading the grapes, which is essential for obtaining the quality of the wine that is presente in the region. At Niepoort, Maria leads off the singing with a traditional harvest song, passed down through the generations. As the groups wade in the blood like grape bath, the songs become a hearty communication between the workers only tailing off as the clock winds down to finishing.
It is usually with the night treads that the day-to-day labour in the Douro Quintas comes to an end.
Although tiring, the atmosphere is festive and joyful, always accompanied by traditional songs of the harvest in the Douro Valley and the furtherance of a glass of Port.
It is precisely this unique sense of tradition, that haven’t changed for centuries, along with a deep respect for nature, that make the Douro valley, in this amazing scenario sculpted by the Douro river, a place not to be missed